Nine year old Sarah Lee is one of the few privileged children to have three great-grandmothers who are still alive! In celebration of Mother’s Day, Keep Calm and Mother On presents this lively story of four generations of women.
By Phua Sze Sze
My daughter Sarah is one of the luckiest people in Singapore and she knows it. She has three great grandmothers! My husband’s grandmothers are 103 years old and 87 years old! They are frail and we visit them when we can.
Sarah is closest to my paternal grandmother, whom she calls Ah Dou. Ah Dou literally brought her up. When I discovered that I was pregnant, my husband Huan Leng and I decided to move nearer to my parents and grandmother because we would need help with childcare. It was one of the best decisions we made!
I could continue at my job at a bank with peace of mind because I knew I could fully entrust my baby to my parents during the day time. My mum and grandma had cared for my three siblings and me when we were young, so I was confident that they were capable of taking care of Sarah too. Since I live so near to them and we communicated openly, I have no problems telling them how I wished Sarah to be brought up.
One of the earliest things was about nutrition. I had read of the benefits of breastmilk. Since I could not feed directly from the breast when I started work, I had to express and freeze breastmilk for Mum and Grandma to give to the baby in a bottle. When I communicated my intention to my family, they supported me all the way. It did not matter that they had not read the latest medical research on breastmilk – they knew my desire and so they sought to make it happen.
It was all rather technical, as mothers who have given their babies expressed milk would know. My mum and grandma were careful to follow the dates written on the milk packets and made sure they prepared the milk in the most hygienic manner without destroying its nutrients.
Sarah was born when Ah Dou was 74 years old. Ah Dou was hale and hearty then. My mother was working at that time, so Ah Dou took care of baby Sarah. In the morning, before I left for my job in a bank, I would drop Sarah off at Ah Dou’s place. She would bathe and feed Sarah bottled breastmilk. Later, when Sarah weaned to solid food, Ah Dou cooked porridge for her. Sarah learned to call “Ah Dou” at around 18 months. Ah Dou was overjoyed.
Ah Dou has always been selfless like this. She is very good with children. When I was a child, my siblings and I tagged along with her everywhere that she went, whether it was to visit her sisters (our grandaunts) or to the polyclinic for a check-up. She never felt that we were a burden; or maybe she just did not say it!
As Sarah grew, she had the usual bouts of childhood sicknesses. However, I have never once received a call at the office that would make me leap into a cab and rush home. I guess it was my mother’s way of handling such crises. With her vast experience of childhood diseases, she knew which were serious and which were not. She kept calm whenever Sarah ran a fever, and she knew how to bring her to our pediatrician when the need arose. Occasionally, she would call me in the office just to check if she should visit the pediatrician or would the local general practitioner do.
I travel quite a bit for my work. During these occasions, Sarah would stay over at my parents’ home. Otherwise, we bring her home every weekday evening and spend time with her on weekends.
Now that Sarah is eight years old, the household routine has changed. She still goes to my parents’ home after school. The very first person she sees will be my mother or Ah Dou waiting for her at the bus-stop. They would hold hands and walk home; occasionally, they would stop by the little garden under the HDB block to admire the lime plant that was planted by my dad.
On the days that she does not have enrichment classes, Sarah’s favourite afternoon activity is to sit beside Ah Dou and watch local Chinese serials. I have very few disagreements with my parents about the way Sarah is nurtured. The only area I had to revisit would be Sarah’s exposure to TV!
“Ah Ma, don’t turn on the TV the whole day, okay? Please make sure the TV is not on when Sarah is doing her work.”
Then my grandma would agree peaceably, ‘Okay, okay. We wouldn’t turn on the TV.”
But I also believe that time management is Sarah’s responsibility, and so I would talk with her. “When you need to do homework, please go to the room to do your work. You can watch TV after that.”
However, it is not all negative. While sitting side by side on the sofa with Ah Dou watching Chinese series, Sarah’s Mandarin has improved! So I have to thank Ah Dou for that!
When the sun goes down, the mood picks up. One by one, Sarah’s aunties would come home from work. Did I say that I have three sisters? Yes, my parents have four children – all girls. I’m the eldest. So, in the evenings, when my daughter and I, my sisters, my mother and my grandmother get together, it can be called Women Power! Dad and Huan Leng have no choice but to put up with our chatter.
As women, naturally we talk a lot! Around the dinner table, we would exchange stories about work, gossip about colleagues or talk about just any topic which we think would be interesting to each other. All of us would pitch in freely and loudly with our opinions on the topic of the day. Meanwhile, Ah Dou is not one to sit out and say nothing. She gives as good as she gets! So, while my sisters are moaning about work, Ah Dou would be giving us advice on what we should do.
Sarah loves having lots of people around her – the more the merrier. Perhaps this is because she is an only child. So, family gatherings are her favourite occasions. She would listen to our conversations with wide eyes (and her eyes are very big). Later, she would chip in with her innocent opinions or ask us for explanations when she cannot follow our topics. Ha ha, I don’t know whether we are a good or a bad influence on her.
Sarah enjoys my sisters’ company because they would entertain her with whatever games she wants to play – Monopoly, Life, puzzles. Sarah is also very interested in the adults’ lives, always asking my sisters about their friends; while they in turn would ask about her friends and school.
My sisters have played a big part in Sarah’s life. Because of my busy schedule, sometimes I could not spend as much time with her as I wished. But my sisters more than make up for it by doting on Sarah; they make her feel like a queen. That’s the nicest thing about having sisters – we are all on the same page about certain things. Like shopping and clothes. We love to shop, and we always try to bring Sarah, Mum and Ah Dou along.
Sarah holds a trump card where her mother and aunts are concerned. She knows many of our deep dark secrets. This is because, instead of bedtime stories, Ah Dou tells Sarah stories about our childhood, particularly the more embarrassing incidents! So, Sarah knows all about one of my sisters (I wouldn’t name names!) who still drank from a milk bottle at 12 years old, and how I always cried whenever I was late for school. She would giggle and laugh. I had to put on my Fierce Face and tell her that such secrets must be kept strictly within the doors of our home!
Sarah loves big family gatherings. The best kind of family gatherings are festivals and birthdays! Chinese New Year is one of the biggies on our family calendar. This festival is always a busy affair in my parents’ home as Ah Dou’s siblings would congregate here for dinner on Chu Yi (the first day of Chinese New Year). For that special meal, Ah Dou and my mother would prepare fish maw soup, Hainanese mixed vegetables, steamed chicken and different types of fish. Since it would not be right to let them do all that preparation alone, my sisters would all pitch in. Sarah’s job is to set up the table before dinner. The house is a mess during the days leading up to Chinese New Year!
Birthdays are nicely sprinkled throughout the year. We celebrate every birthday in the family – Ah Dou’s, my parents’, my sisters’ and Sarah’s, of course. My sisters are busy with work so sometimes birthday celebrations are small affairs at home, with a modest cake (we have to watch those calories!). But we would never fail to sing the birthday song at the top of our voices. I don’t think Sarah would permit us to forget!
Sarah’s birthday, however, cannot be a small affair. She would start planning months ahead of the big day. “Mummy, I want a Barbie cake.” Moments later, she changes her mind and asks for ‘Dora the Explorer’ cake. She discusses her birthday dress with her aunts, who enthusiastically give their fashion comments. Sometimes, they would help to hunt for her birthday dress through all the shopping malls.
Another birthday which is lavishly celebrated is Ah Dou’s birthday. This is a formal event – involving booking of a restaurant table and coordinating with my uncle’s family so that all of us could be present for the February affair. Altogether, 16 people would sit down for Ah Dou’s birthday dinner every year.
For us adults, it is the celebration of another precious year with Ah Dou because we know that she is getting on in years. For Sarah, Ah Dou’s birthday is a wonderful opportunity to see her best-loved people gathered in one place and having a good time. Ah Dou seems to share the same sentiment, because she treats her birthday with casual grace. However, she would always make sure that everybody who was available would come for the dinner, so that she could catch up with them. I think Ah Dou and Sarah have got their priorities straight.
Last year, Ah Dou gave us a scare. She had been having urinary problems for quite a while. She did not want to seek treatment initially, but her condition worsened and she was in great pain. There was no choice. She had to undergo an operation. For elderly people, even the most straightforward operations carry great risks. Sarah prayed for Ah Dou every night before bed. After the operation, Sarah visited Ah Dou in hospital and sat quietly by her bedside. She did not talk or laugh loudly as she normally did. She comforted Ah Dou in her own small way.
However, I knew things had gone back to normal when Sarah sighed loudly one day and said, “Ah Dou ah. She said “store belly” again. I have told her and told her that the word is “strawberry” but she keeps getting it wrong.” I knew that Ah Dou was on the road to recovery.
The highlight of our 2014 was a family trip to Taiwan. We brought Ah Dou along. Without prompting, Sarah held onto Ah Dou’s hand, guiding her to walk on the scenic trails. When travelling from place to place, she would look out for Ah Dou at all times to ensure that we did not leave her behind. Sarah even volunteered to stay in the hotel with Ah Dou to keep her company while the rest of us went shopping.
I treasure every moment with my Grandma because I could see her getting older and frailer with each year. But young Sarah has no such concept. She enjoys being with Ah Dou simply because she feels Ah Dou’s love and she wants to respond.
Seeing things from her point of view, I realised that I have been looking at the empty part of a glass rather than enjoying the cool refreshing drink that is still within my grasp. So, I determine to enjoy whatever moments I have with my family. By doing so, I hope I am role modelling for Sarah the importance of putting family first.